American Indians and the state of South Dakota have a complex and difficult history. Unlike the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre of Fort Belknap, the Sioux of the northern Great Plains engaged in bitter warfare with white settlers and the U.S. Army. That conflict is the longest armed struggle in U.S. history, beginning with a tense showdown between the Sioux and Lewis and Clark in 1803 and terminating in the last “battle” of the Indian wars at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, eighty-seven years later. That is a long time to be in armed conflict. It is not possible to understand the current legal and political relationships between Indians and whites in South Dakota without understanding at least the rudiments of that struggle.
South Dakota has had more Indian voting rights cases than almost any other state – eighteen by our count. There are a number of possible reasons. First, there is the extensive history of armed conflict between the races; old animosities die hard, and they are often reflected in the contemporary attitudes of both Indians and whites. Second, there are many Indians in South Dakota, especially in proportion to the white population. According to the most recent census, South Dakota has a population of 761,000; 63,400 of them are American Indians – about 9 percent. There are nine federally recognized Indian reservations in the state, all of them Sioux.